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Naval Officers at the Time of the Great War

By the time of the Great War, the life of a naval officer remained a strenuous one. He was cut away from home ties except at irregular intervals, and the responsibility on him was enormous. By the time he had paid unavoidable expenses, for uniform, subscriptions, etc., his receipts were just about the same as a driver on the London General Omnibus Company, who drives his motor-bus through the streets of London. Whatever his rank that is about the utmost clear earning that any naval officer can hope for. The Navy was a glorious profession, but there is certainly "no money in it." Taking things all in all and right away through it may be said without exaggeration that the financial prospects of a naval officer and those of a clerk in an ordinary business house, were about one and the same. As a money-making profession the Navy was useless to any man. That is why it remained what the Labour Party often described it as the "preserve of the upper classes."

By the time of the Great War the system of officering the British Navy was as follows : Boys who wished to become Naval officers were examined at about the age of twelve by a special Board. There is no rule-of- thumb examination which can be crammed for ; the whole idea is to select from the candidates such boys as promise to be resourceful, or who exhibit ability to think. This system of selecting future officers was strongly criticised in certain directions ; but when all is said and done it was difficult to think of anything really better. A system whereby boys are crammed to answer certain questions on subjects which are known beforehand, cannot possibly be a test of adaptability, and adaptability is the first essential for a naval officer.

It may further be added that the Examination Board was continually changing, so that anything in the nature of favoritism is impossible ; while as the fees charged are much less than those of any big public school, and very little if anything in advance of the charges of an ordinary private school, it will be seen that "class interest" plays little part in the selection of future officers.

There was a preference for the sons of existing officers, but that is how things should be. "Comes of fighting stock" still meant as much for men as it does for dogs. For the rest, it may be taken for granted that the Navy got its pick of the best available stuff. When a boy was selected he was sent to Osborne Naval College, from which he eventually emerged as a naval cadet, and then as midshipman. From this stage he proceeded to acting sub-lieutenant, and eventually becomes a sub-lieutenant. Thereafter his career depended entirely on himself. According to how he worked when he is an acting sub-lieutenant his ultimate future absolutely depended. The cost of the uniform varies, as those who are anxious to get promoted generally indulge in smart uniforms.

The next stage of promotion in the career of a naval officer is lieutenant, and after eight years' service he automatically becomes a lieutenant-commander. If he had remained a lieutenant, or lieutenant-commander for so long as 14 years, the end of his career was reached. The next step was "commander." If he aspired to further promotion he will certainly have to put his hand deep into his pocket. The smartness and efficiency of a ship depends upon the commander, and whatever may obtain in theory, the creation of a "smart ship " means spending money in various ways. In addition to this, should he be selected for promotion to captain, he is likely to remain some considerable time on the half-pay list, and the pay of an unemployed captain is not high. He will, if employed, have to meet various heavy expenses.

If promoted to commodore, which is a sort of cross between a captain and an admiral, he will receive 1,000 a year, plus extras. As a rear-admiral, he will receive the same, his extras will be the same, but his expenses considerably heavier, as the entertaining of all and sundry will fall upon his pocket. In addition thereunto, he will have a considerable period of non-employment on half-pay.

The career of an officer, once he has reached the rank of captain, was automatic thereafter. His promotion depended entirely on seniority. His employment - that is to say, being on full pay instead of half-pay - depended entirely on his abilities. On promotion to vice-admiral, at the time of the Great War an officer, if employed, would receive something like 1,500 a year. In addition to this there were various allowances ; but if he actually made 500 a year clear out of his employment he will deem himself lucky. By the time all an admiral's expenses were settled up, his actual receipts amounted to something rather less than those of a London motor-bus driver, although in the eyes of everyone he was earning an uncommonly good salary. At the top of the tree our lucky officer reached Admiral of the Fleet, but as on having reached this rank he was probably past the age of employment, his actual income (half-pay) will be about 1,000 a year. The energies required to arrive at this rank are such that similarly in private life the income would probably result in something like 50,000 a year.

With the introduction of steam a special class of non-combatant officers, engineers, at first of warrant, then of commissioned, rank, grew up side by side with the executive officer. With the twentieth century a new scheme of common entry was introduced for both executive and engineer officers. This was mainly due to the desirability that all sea officers should be conversant with machinery, which had gradually been introduced into every form of the ship's activity. A contributory cause was a difficulty which had arisen as to the supply of engineer officers under the necessarily limited condition of their special calling.

A naval man was allowed four religions, Church of England, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, or Wesleyan. To one or other of these he must conform. If he had no particular choice when joining, he was entered as Church of England and was ministered to by the chaplain. Otherwise when the ship is in harbor he was, so far as possible, allowed to go ashore and attend whichever of the other three denominations he had announced himself as belonging to on joining. Whatever religion he joined on as, he has to stay at. The chaplain was generally known afloat as the "Padre," or "sky pilot."

All officers in the Navy had to provide their own uniforms, but all received a small sum from the Government for messing. In a regiment of soldiers all officers mess together. In the Navy, on the other hand, a captain lived in solitary state by himself, and has his own table and apartments. The other officers, that is to say, commanders and lieutenants and civilian branches of corresponding rank mess in the "ward room" and lived in cabins. The junior officers, i.e., sub-lieutenants, midshipmen and corresponding civilian ranks, lived in the "gunroom." Some of the more senior of them had cabins, but most of them slept in hammocks, the same as the men.

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Page last modified: 29-09-2012 18:37:16 ZULU